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The beginner’s guide to frequent flyer programs: How to earn, redeem and maximize airline miles

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Booking flights with airline miles can be intoxicating—it allows you to experience travel you may not otherwise be willing or able to shell out the cash to do.  Award travel can open up the door to nearly unlimited opportunities, but it takes some understanding to learn how to maximize both earning and redeem airline miles. One of the key ways to earn airline miles is through responsible use of the right credit card. Our guide will walk through what you need to know.

What are airline miles?

Airline miles are a rewards currency you can earn after joining an airline’s loyalty program. For example, American Airlines operates the AAdvantage program and United Airlines operates the MileagePlus program. Miles in this usage is essentially another term for “points,” as earning and redeeming miles really isn’t tied to the mile as a physical measurement of distance. 

These miles can typically be redeemed for a variety of options, but using them to book flights on the airline you earned them with (or partners in the same alliance) usually nets the best value.

Pros and cons of earning airline miles with credit cards

Pros

  • Can help you obtain flights otherwise out of reach
  • Rewards your loyalty to specific airlines
  • Some cards may offer extra perks like a free checked bag

Cons

  • Not as flexible as some types of credit card rewards
  • Requires effort to maximize the value of redemptions

Types of airline credit card miles

There are many multiple types of credit card rewards that you can redeem for air travel. But they primarily fall under two categories: airline miles and flexible points.

One distinction between airline miles and flexible points is where the rewards accrue. A card like the UnitedSM Explorer Card deposits the miles you earn via spending on the card directly into your linked United Airlines MileagePlus account. In other words, the miles don’t “live” on your card. Even if you were to close your airline card, you wouldn’t lose the miles (though an expiration date may apply depending on the terms of the specific airline’s loyalty program). 

Below are some examples of airline miles from popular U.S.-based airlines:

  • Alaska Airlines MileagePlan miles
  • American Airlines AAdvantage miles
  • Delta SkyMiles
  • Frontier Miles
  • Hawaiian Airlines HawaiianMiles
  • JetBlue TrueBlue points
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards points
  • Spirit Airlines Free Spirit points
  • United Airlines MileagePlus miles

Importantly, you can redeem your miles for flights on more than just the airline with which you are collecting rewards. You can book flights with its airline alliance partners, too. For instance, United Airlines is part of the Star Alliance, so a United Airlines miles collector can book flights on Air Canada, SWISS, Singapore Airlines, and more through the United website. You can get to just about anywhere in the world with most airline rewards currencies. More on this later.

A potential downside of airline cards are that the rewards can typically only be redeemed with the airline for flights or upgrades. There isn’t an option to use your rewards for cash back. Some popular flexible credit card points give you an option to cash out your points—and while we typically recommend using your rewards for travel, having a backup option can be nice.

Airline miles vs. flexible travel rewards

With flexible travel rewards credit cards, the rewards collect on your card until you redeem them. You’ll typically either transfer your points to an airline or hotel partner and then book travel directly, or use your points to book travel through the issuer’s portal. Examples of flexible rewards programs include:

  • American Express Membership Rewards® points
  • Bilt Rewards
  • Capital One Miles
  • Chase Travel℠ 
  • Citi ThankYou points

Flexible rewards allow you to use your rewards to directly book flights on a variety of airlines, depending on who the issuer partners with. For example, Chase has 11 airline partners you can transfer your rewards to at a 1:1 ratio, which means if you have 20,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points you can transfer them into your Air Canada Aeroplan account resulting in 20,000 Aeroplan miles. This can be an excellent way to maximize the value of your rewards. 

Here’s how. Let’s say you wanted to fly from Toronto to Dallas in early June 2024. The cash price for a business class ticket is $787 on Air Canada’s website at the time of this writing. But paying for it with points would cost just 35,000 Aeroplan points. If you own a card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points, redeeming those points for cash back is worth a penny a point. But transferring 35,000 Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio to the Aeroplan program to redeem for that business class ticket nets you a value of nearly 2 cents per point taking taxes and fees into account. 

A downside to using a flexible travel rewards card rather than an airline card is that you won’t get airline-specific perks such as a free checked bag or priority boarding.

How to earn airline miles

Here’s a look at some of the most effective ways to earn airline miles on purchases you’d need to make anyway. 

Sign up for a co-branded credit card

A co-branded airline credit card is one that contains the name of an airline (e.g. the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card). Similar to a store credit card, a co-branded airline credit card will offer benefits that are specific to that brand. This could mean free checked bags, preferred boarding, discounts on in-flight food and beverages, and more.

An American Airlines earns AAdvantage miles, a United Airlines credit card earns United MileagePlus miles, and so on. The exact earning structure will vary by card, so make sure you opt for a card that fits your lifestyle well. For example, foodies who travel frequently will appreciate the United Explorer Card’s rewards structure, with 2 miles per dollar spent on United purchases, dining, and hotel stays booked directly, 1 mile per dollar on other purchases. 

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card, see this page 

UnitedSM Explorer Card

Intro bonus


Earn 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open





Annual fee $0 introductory annual fee for the first year (then $95)
Regular APR 21.99%–28.99% variable APR


Open a flexible travel rewards card with airline transfer partners

If you don’t need the benefits that come with an airline-specific card—for example, maybe you travel light with just a carry-on and a personal item so a free checked bag isn’t much use to you—perhaps you’d prefer a flexible travel card that lets you transfer points to whichever airline partner you find the best deal on.

When using a flexible travel card, it will behoove you to learn how to leverage airline alliances. You might not always be able to transfer your points directly to the airline you’d like to book a flight with, but if you can transfer them to a partner and book through that partner’s website, you’ll substantially extend your travel reach. 
For example, maybe you’re able to transfer rewards from the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card to British Airways then book a ticket through British Airways on an American Airlines-operated flight. Or perhaps you transfer your Capital One Miles to Virgin Atlantic, then book a flight on Delta through Virgin. Just beware such partner seating may be in limited supply, so find the flight you want through the partner airline (British Airways or Virgin in the above examples) before transferring your points.

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

Intro bonus


Earn 75,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening






Annual Fee $395
Purchase APR 19.99%–29.99% variable
Foreign Transaction Fee None


Earn welcome bonuses

The fastest way to earn airline miles (and flexible points, for that matter) is typically through credit card welcome bonuses. You could potentially earn thousands of dollars worth of travel from a single offer—and there are scores of different options.

For example, the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card comes with 60,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. This is likely enough to get you to London and back, particularly if your dates are flexible and you utilize Delta’s award deals page. Plus, the SkyMiles Reserve offers a “TakeOff 15” benefit, where award tickets on Delta cost cardholders 15% fewer miles to redeem. 

Keep in mind that to earn a welcome bonus, you’ll usually need to meet a minimum spending requirement within a specific amount of time. Make sure that you’re able to complete the spending requirement on a potential new card before you open it—or you could forfeit a great opportunity. 

Also beware that applying for too much new credit in a short period of time can signal to issuers that you’re desperate for credit, so be strategic when it comes to applying for new cards to earn welcome bonuses. 

To view rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card, see this page 

Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card

See Rates and Fees

Intro Bonus


Earn 60,000 Bonus Miles after you spend $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership





Annual fee $650
Regular APR 20.99%–29.99% variable


Shop through online portals

Many airlines also operate their own proprietary shopping portals which will award bonus miles for purchases you planned to make anyway. through the airline portal’s link, your purchases will be tracked and bonuses accordingly.

You could potentially receive over 5 miles per dollar at popular merchants such as Dell, Best Buy, Home Depot, and more. These bonus miles are in addition to the credit card rewards you’ll earn for spending.

How to redeem airline miles for travel

The process of redeeming airline miles is easy. The challenge can be  finding ways to squeeze every last drop of value from them.

The main way to use your airline miles for flights is through that respective airline’s website (or mobile app). You’ll notice before you search for flights an option to view prices in money or miles. Select miles to see if you’ve got enough awards for your desired itinerary.

Airlines have different methods for pricing their award flights. Some examine the distance you fly, others charge according to the cash value of the ticket, and still others use something called dynamic award pricing—which is where the number of points required to book a flight rises and falls with demand. In that last case, peak flight times such as Thanksgiving will require more points than a less-frequently traveled time.

Maximizing your airline miles

The world of award travel can feel complicated at first. Each airline comes with its own tricks and sweet spots. Here are six principles to guide you as you earn and redeem miles with your airline credit card.

Always enter your frequent flyer number

Every time you purchase a ticket, you should enter your airline loyalty number to earn miles for your flight. If you don’t have a loyalty account with the specific airline you’re flying, it’s free to sign up and takes just a few minutes.

Compare the cash price of your ticket

Just because you can cover your flight with miles doesn’t necessarily mean you should. This is an oversimplification, but you should generally aim to get over 1 cent in value per airline mile. 

Most airline miles tend to offer a consistent value between 1.2 and 1.5 cents each to savvy travelers, but can be worth significantly more in some cases. As mentioned  earlier, not all airlines price their award flights based on the cash value of the ticket. A flight to Europe may cost $250 one day and $500 the next—but its award price may be 30,000 miles for both dates.

Divide the cash cost of the airline ticket by the number of miles you’re using and then multiply the result by 100 to find how many cents per mile you’re getting. If it’s under 1 cent, it’s generally not a good deal. If you’re only getting a penny (or less) in value, you’d likely be better off paying cash for the flight, earning miles on that purchase and if possible using your rewards to take a statement credit to offset the cost of the flight.

 Remember to take any taxes or fees out of the cash price when doing for value. For instance, If a ticket costs $400 and the miles price is 20,000 plus $100 in fees, the net value of the ticket in miles is actually $300. So you are actually getting 1.5 cents in value per mile, not 2 cents. 

Be flexible with dates

Flexibility with your travel dates is key to getting a solid value for your airline miles. If you can only travel during the holiday season, award seats are likely going to be either expensive or sold out. But if you’re able to look at the price calendar and let the deals or lower prices guide your travel, it’s possible to get much greater value for your rewards.

Be flexible with your origin and destination airports

Consider award flight deals from major U.S. hubs that don’t exist from smaller airports. If you’re willing to first fly from your home airport to an international gateway hub, you could potentially save a lot. For example, a flight from Newark to Paris might be tens of thousands of miles cheaper than a flight from Rochester to Paris.

You should also research the prices of airports near your destination. The inconvenience of an extra stopover could yield enormous savings. For example, if you want to visit London, take a look at award prices to Edinburgh, Dublin, Paris, and other major European airports nearby. If the prices are dramatically lower, you might be able to simply book your flight to one of these cities and then hop on an inexpensive flight to your actual destination. You can often fly within Europe for around $30 on a low-cost airline.

Book in a premium cabin

You’ll generally get the highest value for your rewards by booking in international business class or first class. These seats tend to cost many thousands of dollars and come with lie-flat seats, free alcohol, extensive dine-on-demand menus, and even pajamas.

Be honest with yourself about how much worth you personally place on more luxurious flights. If the perks of flying business or first class are something you’d like to enjoy, miles can help you attain that. But if you just care about getting from point A to point B, it’s probably not worth spending more miles in total just to feel like the math shows a higher cent-per-mile valuation.

Diversify your miles

It’s a good idea to earn more than one type of airline miles. Sometimes one airline may charge exorbitant rates while another may offer rock-bottom prices. It’s always good to give yourself options.

You can achieve this by owning credit cards from different airlines. You can also open flexible travel cards with transferable points, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which empowers cardholders to transfer rewards to numerous airline loyalty programs.

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Intro Bonus


Earn 75,000 miles after spending $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening





Annual fee $95
Regular APR 19.99%–29.99% variable


Use award search websites

Award sites automate much of the legwork when hunting for the best miles value for a flight.    Sites like point.me, Award Nexus, seats.aero and AwardHacker allow you to search for availability across a large range of global airlines and transfer points to the program that gives the best value for your miles. Some of these services charge a fee, but they can be an invaluable tool for frequent flyers.

How to choose the best airline credit card for you

Choosing the right airline credit card isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Consider the following when trying to narrow down your selection::

  • Does the airline serve your home airport? If you’re opening an airline credit card, be sure that the miles aren’t a hassle to use. Airlines don’t fly to every airport, after all.
  • Does the airline or one of its partners travel where you want to go? If your dream is to visit Asia, a Southwest Airlines card may not help you. 
  • Can you achieve the welcome bonus minimum spending requirement? Again, welcome bonuses are a shortcut to earning enough miles for a flight. If you can’t realistically meet the spending requirement to earn a new card’s welcome bonus, you’re leaving miles on the table. But don’t make expenses outside your budget just to lock in a welcome offer, either. Look for a card with an offer that fits your budget and your life.
  • Does the rewards structure on the card complement your spending patterns? Airline credit cards come with varying bonus categories for spending. Find one that offers bonus points in the areas where you typically spend.
  • Does the airline credit card deliver benefits you’ll actually use? Airline credit cards can offer perks like companion certificates, airport lounge access, free checked bags and more. If you can’t use your prospective card’s benefits, it’s probably not a good fit for your needs. Economy-minded travelers may not find it worthwhile to pay for a premium credit card with lounge access, but business travelers who need to work while on the go might. 
  • Is the annual fee worth it? Don’t let an annual fee scare you off. If the card comes with valuable perks you know you can use, it can be worth the price tag.

The takeaway 

Using airline credit cards to earn miles and then booking award travel can help you go places you thought were only a distant dream. Just make sure you’re not taking on debt you can’t repay with the goal of earning rewards—incurring interest charges will wipe out any value you get from rewards pretty quickly.

If you’re ready to take the next step in learning about what you can do with award travel, consider the cards on our list of best credit cards for travel and see if one might help you achieve your next vacation.


Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying. 

Eligibility and Benefit level varies by Card. Terms, Conditions, and Limitations Apply. Please visit americanexpress.com/benefits guide for more details. Underwritten by Amex Assurance Company. 

Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 



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